By Kristin Kowalew Justice, Upper School Social Studies Department Chair
At the start of the 2020-21 school year, former Director of Teaching and Learning, Dr. Lisa Vardi, approached me with a question: would the Upper School (US) Social Studies Department be interested in working with Diversity Practitioner Jessy Molina to engage in a K-12 curriculum audit focused on equity, inclusion, and justice?
My immediate and unequivocal response was: YES! I knew I could confidently speak on behalf of our department members and surmised that our Lower and Middle School colleagues would be equally interested in the opportunity.
If you know any of us individually and as a collective, you know we are an enthusiastic, reflective bunch of educators, forever in pursuit of maximizing the impact of what happens in our classrooms. And moreover, we really like each other and embrace opportunities to help one another grow and flourish in our shared work. There is no shortage of sharing that occurs by email and group text, be it informative articles, poignant reflections on current events, or funny memes and old school pop culture references related to social studies! And ever-present is a collective eye on the real goal reflected in our Mission Statement: The Bullis Social Studies program provides students with opportunities to develop indepth understanding of their communities and the world, past and present, in order to become responsible and empathetic global citizens. Embedded in this mission is a commitment to curating a culturally responsive and relevant, anti-racist curriculum. So Lisa’s invitation was a no-brainer.
Once Lisa had confirmation from the Middle and Lower School teachers regarding their interest to engage in this audit, we began our work in earnest. The first step involved divisional leadership representatives meeting with Jessy to discuss the survey that would be used to collect data on each course to ensure that the process would be most meaningful in terms of our goals for this audit. Subsequently, each teacher, or teaching team in the Upper School, completed a comprehensive survey for each social studies course. The survey collected information on course objectives, themes, essential questions, materials, and assessments.
I also requested that each teacher share any evidence of civic education embedded in each curriculum. This work occurred parallel to but also in tandem with other key diversity initiatives, including work with Jessy on our school-wide year-long implicit bias training, and a joint English and Social Studies 6-12 workshop on “Best Practices for Talking About Race” in the classroom. Additionally, the Equity, Inclusion, and Justice Committee (EIJ) at Bullis established several subcommittees at the start of the school year, including one on the 2020 Election, which I chaired. Following the end of the election season, the work of this subcommittee has pivoted to focus more broadly on civic education at Bullis, so this audit provided a fantastic opportunity to reflect on our civic education and engagement work at large.
Once the surveys were completed, Jessy worked her magic and did a K-12 audit. In February we met for a “Windows and Mirrors” workshop. First coined by Emily Style, “Windows and Mirrors” is a framework for critically assessing where students may see themselves reflected in the curriculum and what they see when they look out into the world, seeing others different from themselves. It is important to have both windows and mirrors. Jessy presented a set of questions for reflection including the following:
- In what ways is your curriculum a mirror? In what ways is your curriculum a window? For which students/groups?
- Where are skills of racial literacy taught in the curriculum?
- In what ways are the histories and contributions of LGBTQIA people, women and girls, working class people, and non-Christian faiths present in your curriculum?
- Are there any important differences between the core curriculum and the electives?
- In what ways is traumatic and painful history the dominant theme in the stories of people of color?
- In what ways are resistance and resilience the dominant theme in these stories?
- In what ways does your curriculum reinforce negative stereotypes? In what ways does it interrupt stereotypes?
- In what ways does your curriculum empower young people to be changemakers?
In the last stage of our audit, Jessy shared a set of reflections and recommendations for each division, which highlighted the many strengths of our existing program in terms of the breadth and depth of our diverse and inclusive program, as well as exposing some key areas for consideration and expansion in a developmentally appropriate and aligned approach. Some key findings included maintaining and/or increasing focus on:
- Explicitly addressing race in the curriculum, helping children understand that differences are normal parts of the beautiful diversity of our world;
- Comparing and contrasting cultures and communities with an emphasis on how all are valuable and interesting;
- Considering adding units or lesson plans to explicitly address sexuality, gender identity, socioeconomic class, religion, etc.
- Considering the inclusion of the study of non-Western civilizations and cultures in all grades;
- Explicitly addressing identity and offering opportunities for students to build racial literacy and cultural competency skills.
- Considering in which courses identity, culture, stereotypes, bias, racial literacy, and enslavement are explored and where they can be added to ensure all students engage with the topics, including how to reduce the impact of bias in decision making, understanding the social and political context of racism and how to dismantle systemic racism, and the humanizing of enslaved Native Americans and Africans through the lens of resilience and resistance of their descendants;
- Considering where and how the histories of Asian Americans, Latinx Americans, LGBTQ people, and working class people across the whole of humanity are included and how all underrepresented students can develop a positive and healthy view of themselves.
- Identifying examples of injustice in society, both past and present (including connections), and today’s civil and human rights issues, and explore ways students who want to make a change can be part of one in the school and community;
- Considering how guest speakers can help underrepresented students in the community see themselves reflected in our curriculum and program.
So what’s next?
Across divisions, our social studies teachers will continue to regularly reflect on the audit’s findings: to identify what is missing in our curriculum and program at large and work to ensure that all children see themselves in the curriculum and provide more windows into more of the world. Reflections and conversations are ongoing as we engage in our routine deliberative reflection at the end of the year, identify strengths and areas for growth, and use time to workshop our curricula in the summer as we prepare for the new school year.
The US Social Studies department spent time this year updating our course descriptions and enumerating a comprehensive list of skills and competencies for each course, including content, critical thinking, research, writing, and presentation skills. This work will continue as we look programmatically at the social studies program competencies we hope each Bullis graduate will demonstrate. These competencies will reflect our equity, inclusion, and justice goals as well as K-12 vertical scaffolding and alignment. We will continue this work in partnership with the newly formed K-12 Curriculum and Program Committee as we seek to augment our elective offerings to expand the scope of our diverse and inclusive program, ensuring a broad and equitable participation by students in all courses, on level, AP and elective, based on student interest and goals.
The work of the Civic Education EIJ subcommittee will continue to evaluate the civic knowledge and skills, values and agency embedded through our curricula at the cross-divisional level with the goal of identifying strengths and areas for growth to support our school’s mission to prepare all students to become caring citizens and creative, critical thinkers who will thrive in tomorrow’s world.
This broad work continues in concert with the initiatives of the Equity, Inclusion, and Justice Committee and the Strategic Planning Committee.
As we continue to navigate the challenges presented in this unique year by the global pandemic, as well as living, teaching and learning within a deeply divided, politically polarized nation, witness ongoing police brutality, ensuing protests, and pursuits for racial justice, the urgency is real for this work. We, in the Bullis Social Studies program, are energized to do this work, emboldened by the strength of our existing program, and humbly aware of the areas to dig in and do the work as we move forward.
This article is featured in the Spring/Summer 2021 issue of Bullis Magazine.
- Bullis Magazine
- Spring/Summer 2021